In every con or act of misconduct, people’s ability to distract, deceive and conceal is a critical skill. This comes to mind frequently in my work addressing white-collar malfeasance and fraud. Shellacking falsity and ineffectualness with peroxide is similarly applicable to many of Donald Trump’s decisions and actions, with last Thursday being no exception: on the day after the midterm elections that saw the Democratic party retake control of the House as well as myriad other encroachments on Trump’s and the Republicans’ choke-hold on power, Trump sacked his attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Well, he didn’t actually do it; he ordered it be done. And then later that day, Trump directed that CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s White House press pass be revoked, following a heated confrontation between them at a press briefing.
The celebrity persona Trump crafted on The Apprentice is the corporate strongman, imperiously commanding, cowed by no one and merciless in declaring “you’re fired!” to all who fail to impress him. But as a recent Forbes post suggests, providing a long, though still only partial, list of high-level direct reports Trump has ousted by decree but not by his own hand, the reality suggests otherwise.
Seeing Trump’s pattern of delegated dismissals laid out so clearly leads to further questions: Why would he consistently and repeatedly do this? What does this form of decision-making tell us about him as a leader?
One answer, the one Trump might want us to accept and which is affirmed in countless books and magazine articles detailing corporate titans’ recipes for effective leadership, is efficiency. Once deciding somebody is unworthy of ongoing employment, informing him or her of that would, so this line of thinking suggests, be a wasteful misuse of a busy leader’s valuable time. Successful leaders know when to delegate. Delegation is ingrained in management theory as a cornerstone of authoritative leadership.
As with many oversimplifications of complex ideas, there’s a microbe of credibility contained within it. Who can argue that executives should be smart and judicious with their time and effort? But that rationale doesn’t justify it as a universal practice and certainly fails to explain this person’s serial actions in these situations — the actions of a man who built a reputation of power and authority by firing people, yet who is chronically unwilling or unable to finish that job personally.
There are some people who are almost sphinx-like, unreadable and inscrutable. They rarely betray much if anything about what’s going on inside. You can’t tell — often, even if you ask, you won’t learn — what that person is thinking or feeling. Interaction is pulling teeth or decoding semaphores, more inference and extrapolation than direct discourse. And then there are others whose inner life is fully on display, reminiscent of a visit to Sea World where you enter a thick-glassed viewing chamber to see everything under the surface.
Trump is in that second class. He is obvious and transparent, not merely signaling but unequivocally telegraphing. Though there are many things we don’t know, there are virtually no secrets, and despite his incessant lying, few truths about his thinking, state of mind, or imminent actions are actually hidden. It’s the primitive and underdeveloped psychology of a young child, a normal but temporary developmental phase appropriate only in young children, but if persistent in adults, is typically indicative of a host of arrests, impairments and disturbances. By the beginning of middle-school age we expect a measure of containment and behavioral modulation, the capacity for some poise — not just impulse control but internal sturdiness — which is the mainstay of everyday socialization.
So how does this relate to Trump’s need to enlist helpers to close the deal for him? In a word, impotence (and I mean psychological impotence; I offer no speculations about his bodily functioning). He uses proxies as prosthetics. He engages surrogates to project the appearance of ferocity. It’s a psychological fraud used to dupe us into believing he is capable, not ineffectual.
Last Thursday’s tantrum is almost understandable: the midterms had just drawn blood. But rather than lick his wounds and regroup, he was characteristically vengeful. But it’s nothing new and is rarely tethered to actual events or situations. It doesn’t matter: the events of the world are gnats, annoying catalysts for a preexisting state, a maelstrom of fear and outrage. Sessions, Acosta, the liberal media, hordes of migrants, Democrats, loyalists and inevitably former loyalists, Obama, Pelosi, Mexicans, girlfriends, wives, daughters: All become indistinguishable, all seem to blend into a frothing mass of betrayers, ingrates, idiots, failures, discardables. Humiliation and vilification precede decapitation.
Who thinks like this? People who live deep within such a world, who are unimaginably petrified, who harbor a morbid dread of abject humiliation, who are driven to settle the score, who show all the signs of unspeakable abuse and profound psychological trauma. These are the well-known features that bind together authoritarians, Mafosi and despots with fundamentalists and extremists.
The beauty, in a perverse sense, of Trump’s firing Sessions and the manner in which he did so, is how perfectly it crystalizes the Trumpian system, his psychological space. It’s weaponization by proxy. Of course he cannot contend or complete on his own. He is far too vulnerable, a turtle with no shell, yet standing by his own design at the center of the universe, visible to everybody. Tax returns? Shell companies? Shadow deals? These too are proxies, material icons safely secured in an extravagantly hostile world. But nothing that truly matters is hidden or obscured. He tells us everything at every turn — exactly how he feels, how he sees himself, how he sees others, how he experiences himself in the world, what he wants, how terrified he is, what can happen — or what he wants to have happen. His imperative is to neutralize, eradicate or shut out the dangers.
To exist in this condition is truly awful, a living hell. And if we can be sure of anything, it’s this: He will never stop bringing us into it with him.
I am the Founder of Dolus Advisors, a consultancy delivering predictive insight and actionable solutions in human risk. We help organizations proactively detect, mitigate and respond to all manner of human factor disturbances (e.g., executive misconduct, fraud, corruption, insider threats), and forecast and address human and technological risks in an increasingly automation-driven world. I am also a principal in the Boswell Group, a psychodynamic management consulting group, and an experienced advisor to senior business leaders, entrepreneurs and boards, combining clinical insight with practical business strategies to address issues involving people, culture, ethical decision-making and other aspects of corporate and organizational life with complex psychological underpinnings.
This was originally published as “Donald Trump’s Leadership Clinic: How To Disguise Impotence As Power” on the Forbes Strategic Leadership Channel at https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexanderstein/2018/11/08/donald-trumps-leadership-clinic-how-to-disguise-impotence-as-power/#41838bee6b1f